This week’s portion opens with a friendly, wizened face. Yitro–priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses–emerges from the wilderness, daughter and grandsons in tow. After hearing of Israel’s liberation, the priest has come to reunite Moses with the family he had previously sent away. Moses’s delight in seeing Yitro is palpable. The text is suffused with a rare tone of uncomplicated warmth–relief, even, at the esteemed elder’s validation of his son-in-law’s exploits and powerful God.
There is, however, not much room in Moses’s life for such comforts. No sooner than the morrow does he return to a grueling regimen–attending to those who, seeking justice for their conflicts and claims, “stood upon [him] from morning until evening.” In this tableau’s corner, one can just make out Yitro emerging into the morning dew, taking in the endless gaggle of contestants bearing down upon Moses. Surveying the snaking line, the bewildered priest poses to his son-in-law: “Why do you sit alone with all the people standing upon you from morning to evening?”
In short order, Yitro dismisses Moses’s defense of his solitary endeavor. “The thing you do is not good. You will surely wear yourself out–both you and this people that is with you–for the thing is too heavy for you, you will not be able to do it alone.” Moses, Yitro admonishes, must delegate authority to trusted judges who will seek the leader’s counsel only in the most difficult cases.
It is not surprising that Yitro quickly grows concerned with the specter of a depleted Moses. Indeed, immediately preceding Yitro’s arrival, Moses appears as a wretchedly fatigued man: his raised arms–talismanic keys to victory in the battle with Amalek–remaining outstretched only through the support of Aaron and Hur.
But, pointedly, Yitro’s concern is not limited to Moses alone. The Midianite fears too for the nation’s well being. In a query at once tender and accusing, Yitro plies: “What is this thing that you do to the people?” Unless justice is made more accessible, he warns, the people themselves will be worn down through waiting. But, if Moses appoints judges, Yitro assures, “you will be able to stand, and also all this people will come to its place in peace.” Sensing, perhaps, the ominous implications of this assurance’s inverse, Moses heeds his father-in-law’s words.